THE FIRST QUESTION: “Is the ‘Upper Room’ a church? Strictly speaking, the answer is ‘No’. It is certainly a place of evangelical Christian fellowship, but if by ‘church’ you mean a dedicated house of worship, with a steeple, stained-glass windows, wooden pews and an ornately carved pulpit, then, no, the Upper Room is not a church. So, Christopher Luxon didn’t lie to RNZ’s Suzie Fergusson on Wednesday morning (1/12/21) when he said he hadn’t been in a church for five years.
Where I come from, however, we would call Luxon’s answer “Jesuitical” – meaning “practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing”. Why? Well just think about Luxon’s answer for a moment or two. Five years ago, Luxon’s political career was just a gleam in Prime Minister John Key’s eye. He was still at the helm of Air NZ, still earning more than $4 million per annum, and, almost certainly, still a key participant in the Fellowship of the Upper Room.
Why not admit frankly to his membership of the Upper Room? What is it about this Fellowship that prompts Luxon and his advisers to make as little of it as possible? The answer lies in the information unearthed by the sort of journalists who know where to go looking on the Internet for linkages between evangelical Christian fellowships and ambitious right-wing politicians. What those searches revealed was an Upper Room pastor of decidedly Trumpian sympathies, whose political views appeared to match those of the American Christian Right. Unsurprisingly, Luxon has done his utmost to put these “interesting” associations as far behind him as possible.
Indeed, his embarrassment is evident in the way he attempts to dissuade journalists from examining his Christian beliefs too closely. He told his first media conference as Leader of the Opposition that his faith had been “misrepresented and portrayed very negatively”. That personal faith, he declared was something that “has grounded me and put me into [a] context that is bigger than myself.” Anticipating the assembled journalists’ next question, he went on to clearly affirm his belief in the “separation of politics and faith”.
Now this is a rather peculiar formulation. Most people who had given the question serious thought would have used the more familiar formulation: the separation of Church and State. There are many sound historical and philosophical reasons for keeping the spiritual and temporal powers in their proper spheres. Theocracies are not comfortable places in which to live.
Jesus himself famously responded to the daunting challenges of power and piety with his wonderfully (and typically) enigmatic: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
But keeping “faith” and “politics” separate? Well, that’s a very different matter. Many would argue that no Christian worthy of the name would ever attempt to do such a thing. Was Jesus keeping faith and politics separate when he scourged the money-changers and overturned their tables? When he cried out: “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” Was the Galilean carpenter keeping politics on the down-low when he told his followers: “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (One can only speculate about how easy entering Heaven might be for the owner of seven houses!)
What kind of Christian would attempt to persuade his brothers and sisters that the moral imperatives of their faith must not, under any circumstances, be given practical expression in the flesh-and-blood world they inhabit? If the Almighty commands: “Thou shalt not kill.” Then, is it not incumbent upon a Christian legislator to make laws forbidding murder and manslaughter? (And Abortion?) To suggest, as Luxon does, that faith and politics can – and should – be separated, admits but one of two possible conclusions. Either he does not understand the obligations of a Christian. Or, he isn’t one.
Then again, it is possible that he is the sort of Christian that gave us the word I used earlier, “Jesuitical”.
The “Society of Jesus” – The Jesuits – were formed in 1540 to combat the “error” of Protestantism at a time when the Catholic Church and the followers of Martin Luther and his theological reformers were locked in mortal combat for the soul of Christendom. In the bitter religious and military conflicts arising out of the Catholic “Counter-Reformation”, the Jesuit Order became the equivalent of the Pope’s Navy SEALs – an elite ideological force in the defence of the one true faith. As is the case with so many elite units, the ends of the Jesuits’ spiritual combat missions were deemed sufficiently important to justify all manner of means.
Fast-forward to the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, and Christianity is still a religion bitterly divided between those caught up in the struggle to determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God; and those who, heretically, have come to regard the purposes of God and the purposes of Caesar as one and the same.
The former see God’s marching-orders in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: and in God’s preferential option for the poor. The latter believe that God exercises his authority through those he chooses to lead a lost and sinful world. Crucially, these need not be good men. Was the murderer and adulterer, King David, a good man? God loved him, nonetheless. All that matters is that such men rise to positions from which the will of God can be made manifest. The American Christian Right understood immediately that Donald Trump wasn’t a good man. But, they believed with all their heart that he was God’s man.
Which of these two groups does Christopher Luxon belong to?
As the Taxpayers Union was quick to point out, a man who took a $4 million pay-cut to enter Parliament was clearly not doing it for the money! Interviewed on camera by Stuff, just hours after becoming the National Party’s new leader, Luxon traces his interest in politics to reading a biography of Winston Churchill – a man who, from an early age, was convinced that God/Destiny had a special purpose for him. The biographies of “great men” have shaped Luxon’s understanding of both business and politics. If the Taxpayers Union is right, and he’s not in Parliament for the money, then why is he there? For the power?
Luxon insists that his goal is to restore National to the paths of moderation. If true, then we must wish him well. But I can’t help recalling his difficulty in responding to Suzie Fergusson’s questions about his faith. To be an evangelical Christian is to be a proud proclaimer of Christ’s “good news” to “all the nations”. No Christian politician should ever be tongue-tied when challenged to declare his mission. Jesus’s “Order of the Day” has not changed in 2,000 years:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, love your neighbour as yourself.”
The only world worth fighting for politically, and the only world worth living in, is the world in which Caesar marches to the same order.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 2 December 2021.